Krystian Woznicki on Mon, 16 Feb 1998 07:59:14 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Interview with Toshiya Ueno

SANYA: On Marginal Space and Periphery
Interview with Toshiya Ueno

by Krystian Woznicki

Depopulation governs the scene. This neighborhood definitely seems
deserted. Yet here, some motionless bodies on the ground. In rags on the
broadwalk; on the street. Eyes closed.
Rotten garbage is blown into slices. Wind slides into a paralyzed winter
landscape. Barracks. Some loose groupings of men in the side streets.
Gambling. Debating. Here and there. Disjointed. 
It is noon. We are in Sanya.

Slum-like as Sanya may appear at first glance, emphasizing, or even
reducing it to this feature would give rise to misconceptions about the
phenomena we are about to tackle. 
Slum-like settlements are as old as attempts to single out certain
professions (not conform with Buddhist ethics, yet indispensable for any
society) and to remove their working place from the official sphere of
production; into zones precluded from social intercourse. Zones put under
Social historians are counting in centuries... 

Enter Sanya before sunrise. Countless men are on the main road, that
separates the area in two parts. Suddenly there is motion. Energy and
friction. Men compete here - every morning. To get a job for the day. 
Their working place is not more than 20 minutes away. Often set in one of
Tokyo's centers. Usually on a construction site. 
Since Japan is instituted as a modern nation state (1868) a fluid and
mobile labor pool has acquired the role of an economical presence and an
anything but unchallenged historical visibility. It was however not long
before the end of WW2  that such gathering places for workers, who get
jobs off the street, called [i]yoseba[i], were rapidly spreading across
the country. 

During his two-hour stop-over in Tokyo, I meet the international scholar
and media activist Ueno Toshiya for an interview, who has been ever since
intrigued by Sanya as a phenomena, and, more importantly, as a possibility
to reinvent the public sphere in Japan. 

Krystian Woznicki: In order to make your position transparent, it would be
interesting to hear when you first went to Sanya. Do you recall your
first encounter? 

Ueno Toshiya: I have been to Sanya in 1985 for the first time. That was
actually with Felix Guattari. I am not sure, but I think it was a
publishing house that invited him. He was interested in political and
social issues in Japan. It must have been the reason why Sakamoto Ryuichi,
who met Guattari at that time, introduced the political activist (music
and subculture critic) Gen Hirai to him. 
In those days I was deeply involved with a free radio station in Japan
called >radio homerun<, which started to broadcast in April 1984. At that
time so-called mini FMs were  very influential media. As you know the
Japanese regulation of frequency is very limited. We can use the
transmitter within the range of 500 meters. At that time Mini FM was
already commercialized and commodified. Our station was a bit different.
We were involved in a political movement; not only with social goals but
also artistic and media activistic. Guattari, together with the social
philosopher Asada Akira visited >radio homerun< and also Sanya. 
That was my first encounter with Sanya. It was a very crucial period,
because Sato Mitsuo, the director of the film >>Yama<< was killed at that
time. >>Yama<< was dedicated to depict the daily life's and struggle
of the workers. An English subtitled version was first screened 1987 in

KW: How was the atmosphere in Sanya at the time of your first visit?

UT: Well, normal. [laughs] Normal...that is quite different from Japanese
normal life. 

KW: Did you have a guide?
UT: Our guide was Kyoichi Yamaoka, who, after the assassination of Sato,
continued the production of >>Yama<<. I remember him very vividly. He was
very kind and helpful in explaining the history of Sanya, its importance
in the urban landscape, etc. Unfortunately he was also killed by the
organized crime.

KW: Apart from that visit, did you go to Sanya on other occasions? 

UT: I went with some students and artists, and took them around;
frequently also with visitors from abroad. It is very notable that
artists, critics from abroad are so incredibly fascinated by Sanya.

KW: Why?

UT: It appears a little bit chaotic and dirty, sometimes  destructive in
atmosphere, one could even say depressive. It is an impressive contrast to
the usual life in Tokyo. For a long time I was puzzled about this. But
recently I began to understand. 
I for instance like Amsterdam for its particular energy. Of course, it is
not only generated by drug (ab)use, but also by the cities' cultural
scene: art, media activism, etc. But what I seem to like in particular is
its destructive side, its dirt and bustling chaos. There is some "dirty
realism" (a term itself used by the Marxist philosopher and urban critic
Henri Lefebvre). In that sense Sanya seems very global in its appeal. 

KW: Isn't it however circumscribed by very local power structures?
UT: At this point, we should be very careful though. The system uses such
regional specifities, such local cultural aspects. 
A good example is a branch of the department store chain Seibu in Osaka.
In the late 80's Cyberpunk novels were still very influential for people
in Japan.  People liked that sort of slum-like landscape, while having
some sort of nostalgic feeling, not to say longing for Asian traditional
architecture. Urban developers consulted the Seibu department to simulate
such a landscape. 

KW: Was it successful?

UT: No, not at all. It was mere kitch. There was no street culture. There
were no street kids.  

KW: What is the relationship of people living in Sanya to domestic

UT: Of course, most if not all the workers in Sanya are excluded from
normal city life. Sometimes they willingly seek refuge in Sanya, trying
to escape their problems at home; problems they may have had with their
wife, etc. So, by going to Sanya they resign from "normal" life. 
Many of them get by the time so isolated that they get curious about
visitors, and interested in talking with outsiders; if it was to show and
explain their situation and life style, of which outsiders have so little

KW: Could you talk about Sanya's demography?   

UT: There are mainly workers; or more precisely day laborers,
approximately less than 10 000 of them.

KW: And the sex?

UT: Mostly men. It is an interesting point. Drawing a line between day
laborers in Sanya and homeless people seems hard at times. We often tend
to look at the situation in Sanya by comparing it to the homeless
situation in Shinjuku ( There, in
Shinjuku are women. But in Sanya there are hardly any; not to speak of

KW: How about the age? 

UT: There are mainly old people, middle-aged. Of course, there are some
younger unemployed people, but so-called street kids, or children
generally cannot be found there. 

KW: Is there only a mobile pool of day labors moving from yoseba to

UT: There is also a permanent population in Sanya: shopkeepers, etc. They
amount to about 35.000. In a sense however it is more interesting for me
to look at the mobile segments; as the shifts in capital entail movements
in labor force. 

KW: Could you sketch your view on the mobile segements and the power to
which they are subjected ?

UT: In the Edo period [1600-1868] there was a special place for executions
to be carried out, a residence for criminals, which was located on an area
of reclamated land. It was marginal space. In Anthropology and Sociology
the margin and center dichotomy, or say, binary opposition is very
important. Society can establish a stable position by creating some
marginal space. Often, only by creating an outside, by creating
ideological dichotomies a society can generate stability. 
KW: Do you see a shift since WW2?

UT: After WW2, in the process of modernization Sanya changed its meaning.
More than 100 years ago Sanya was marginal space. But after the war Sanya
became periphery. During the process of restructuring and reformatting
society and economy the dichotomy has reached a new stage. Since then
Sanya needs to be approached in terms of the periphery and center model. 
Originally periphery has a broader meaning. In urban studies, we call
suburbs periphery. That is one meaning.  Another meaning derives from the
world system theory, which was elaborated by Immanuel Wallerstein. He
explains capitalism as a world system. He looks at why Great Britain
progressed as an economy, and why for example China and India couldn't.
Naively one could probably say that it has something to do with the
cultural characteristics of a people. Yet, capitalism is always already an
all inclusive system: on the one side the center (e.g. Britain), on the
other side the periphery. This is very different from the anthropological
understanding of this opposition. It is interesting for me to applicate
and appropriate this paradigm, this methodology, this point of view in
order to reinterpret and re-analyze Sanya. 
The construction company always needs cheap and unstable workers. 

KW: Such as during the preparations for the 1964 Olympics? 

UT: Yes, for example. 

KW: What was the effect on Sanya when the economy bursted in the end of
the 80's?

UT: On the one hand, the role of Sanya changed from a quantitative need
to a qualitative one. The systems now needs some negative space; some sort
of ideological buffer zone. 
On the other hand people poured out of Sanya. It is an important issue.
Consider Shinjuku, or look at other cities. There are so many homeless
people. The situation is already completely different from 1985. 
In those days Sanya was still considered some sort of ghetto. It was a
very special periphery. The notion of the periphery in its material
manifestation is however omnipresent in Japan right now!

KW: Could you explain that?

UT: Maybe we are all in a way homeless and unstable workers. Can you
imagine how many people work during the New Years celebration [the biggest
family holiday in Japan] in a so-called convenience store (those
supermarkets opened 24hrs): young people, old. They are not stable
workers. And there are the few who work, just as the day labors from
Sanya, while all the work in town comes to a halt during that holiday. 

KW: Is there interest from the general public?

UT: Well, maybe everybody knows, but ...people disavow. In
psycho-analytical terms we could speak of repression. It is of course an
ideological situation. 

KW: How about publicity?

UT: Nothing like it in mass media. Even the left wing parties abstain from
bringing this issue into the spot light during the election period. But
there has been some publicity.
Gen Hirai as a member of various committees has been doing important work
for a long time in that field. There are some non-profit organizations of
which Yoseba Gakai [scholar conference for yoseba] may be particularly
interesting. They deal with yosebas in Japan on highly academic terms. 

KW: Why are you nowadays concerned with Sanya? 

UT: I am interested in slums, because there is real life. There are
families, hospitals, maybe a church. There is a strong sense of a public
sphere. The model of a public sphere in a slum is the same as the
so-called authentic, normal model of the public sphere. Maybe it is easier
to strive towards a resolution of this problem in the states, because
there is a very strong heritage of a public sphere. But unfortunately
there is nothing like it in Japan. Look at the Japanese term >>oyake<<,
which means public. Sometimes it is even directly related to the
government, or local government. 
 I would even go so far to say that there is no public sphere in Japan.
People can speak without context, without framework, like Otaku. 

KW: Did you find a particular conception of the public sphere in Sanya?

UT: I think that there is a possibility to reinvent the public sphere in
Japan. Yes, we should not only look at Sanya. We should look at the
periphery in general. Maybe we can find some transversable relationship,
some virtual border. Therefore it is an urgent task for people to
recognize the changing notion of the public sphere in relation to the

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